The financing of Fawlty Towers

Townsquare.Fawlty Tower

The saga of the Mrieħel and the Townsquare towers is now entering a new phase, with the planning appeal stopwatch due to start ticking shortly –  most probably towards the end of the month. It is known that, so far, Sliema Local Council and a number of environmental NGOs will be appealing against the 4 August decision of the Planning Authority to approve the “Fawlty Towers” at Mrieħel and Townsquare Sliema .

Financing of the projects is next. The banks cannot increase their already substantial exposure to loans that are dependent on building speculation. Consequently, the developers will inevitably have to seek the involvement of private citizens and, possibly, institutional investors. Most probably, the process for financing the projects has already commenced; it will involve the issuing of bonds to the public and will normally be sponsored by a bank and a stock-broking agency.

The bank or banks and stockbrokers sponsoring the bond issue will have to ensure that the bonds are subject to an “appropriateness and suitability testing” subject to such direction as the Malta Financial Services Authority  may consider necessary and suitable. Also, in the light of past local unpleasant experiences, the Authority will undoubtedly be guided by the need to ensure  that prospective investors fully understand the inherent risks of the proposed investments.  It will also ensure that detailed information is published in the form of a suitable prospectus in which the small print is both legible and understandable.

Those who finance the high-rise projects should shoulder responsibility for their impact together with the Planning Authority and the developers. They will potentially make it happen, so they should carry the can. It is important to get this message through: those who will invest in the Gasan and Tumas bonds intended to finance the “Fawlty  Towers”  should receive more than a monetary return on their investment. The moment they sign up they will also assume co-responsibility – with the developers, the Planning Authority, the bank or banks and the sponsoring stockbrokers – for this projected development .

Word is going around on the need to boycott the services and products placed on the market by the Gasan and Tumas Groups. Journalist Jürgen Balzan, writing in Malta Today described these services and products as being wide-ranging (hotels, car-dealerships, gaming, finance and property) which easily impact on the daily life of a substantial number of Maltese citizens. However, such a boycott’s only link with  the “Fawlty  Towers”  would be through the owners.  It would be preferable for a boycott to have a direct link with the offensive action.  In this context, the forthcoming bond issue to finance the “Fawlty  Towers”  presents itself as a suitable opportunity.

A boycott is a non-violent instrument of protest that is perfectly legitimate in a democratic society. The boycotting of the forthcoming bond issue would send a clear message that people will not be complicit in further ruining the  urban fabric of Sliema and ensure that development at Imrieħel is such that the historic landscape is fully respected.

A social impact assessment, if properly carried out, would have revealed the apprehensions of the residents in particular the residents on the Tignè peninsula. But, unfortunately, as stated by Sliema Green Local Councillor Michael Briguglio, the existing policy-making process tends to consider such studies as an irritant rather than as a tool for holistic management and community participation.

We have had some recent converts on the desirability of social impact assessments, such as Professor Alex Torpiano, Dean of the Faculty for the Built Environment at the University of Malta. Prof. Torpiano, in an opinion piece published by the Malta Independent this week, stressed that spatial planning in Malta needs a social-economic dimension. Unfortunately, I do not recollect the professor himself practising these beliefs as the leading architect in the MIDI and Cambridge projects on the Tignè peninsula,  a stone’s throw from Townsquare!

Investing in this bond issue is not another private decision: it will have an enormous impact on the community.

Responsibility for this ever-increasing environmental mess has to be shouldered by quite a few persons in Malta. Even the banks have a very basic responsibility – and not one to be shouldered just by the Directors: the shareholders should also take an interest before decisions are taken and not post-factum.

I understand that the Directors of APS Bank have already taken note of the recent  statements regarding the environment by  Archbishop Charles Scicluna. As such, it stands to reason that APS will (I hope) not be in any way associated with the financing process for the “Fawlty  Towers”.  However, there is no news as yet from the other banks, primarily from the major ones – ie Bank of Valletta and HSBC.

This is a defining moment in environmental action in Malta. It is time for those that matter to stand up to be counted – and the sooner the better.

published by the Malta Independent on Sunday – 21 August 2016

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Land use planning : beyond rhetoric

Freeport 2015

 

There is a common thread running through a number of local land-use planning controversies: they are tending to either ignore or give secondary importance to environmental, social and/or cultural issues, focusing instead on economic considerations.

On this page I have discussed the impact of the Freeport Terminal on  Birżebbuġa a number of times. The basic problem with the Freeport is that its impact on the Birżebbuġa community were ignored for a very long time. In fact, an attempt to include a Social Impact Assessment as an integral part of the EIA which was carried out some years ago was given the cold shoulder by MEPA. The end result was that the decision-taking process was not adequately informed of the impact of the terminal extension, both those already apparent and those which were yet to come. In particular, no assessment was made of the disintegration of the sports infrastructure in the area that has  slowly been eaten up – primarily by the Freeport.

Most of this could have been avoided through an active engagement with the local community over the years at the various stages of the project’s planning and implementation. This is why plans for the Freeport’s expansion, as indicated by the Freeport Corporation’s CEO  earlier this week in an interview with The Business Observer, should be explained  immediately. Even at this early stage it must be ascertained that the situation for  Birżebbuġa residents will not deteriorate any further.

No one in his right mind would deny that, over the years, the Freeport has made a significant contribution to Malta’s economic growth. Few, however, realise that the price paid for this economic success has been the erosion of the quality of life of the Birżebbuġa community. This is certainly unacceptable but it will only get worse, once the gas storage tanker for the Delimara Power Station is parked within Marsaxlokk Bay in the coming months, very close to the Freeport terminal.

The same story is repeating itself in other areas. Consider, for example, the 38-floor tower proposed at Townsquare and the 40-floor tower proposed for the Fort Cambridge project, both on the Tignè Peninsula in Sliema. The Townsquare assessment process is reaching its conclusion, whilst the one in respect of Fort Cambridge is still in its initial stages. Yet both are linked to the same fundamental flaw: the lack of consideration of the cumulative impact of the development of the Tignè Peninsula – which includes the MIDI development as well as the individual small scale projects in the area.

The adoption of plans and policies which have made it possible for the authorities to consider the development of the Tignè Peninsula were not subject to a Strategic Impact Assessment and, as a result, the cumulative impact of implementing these plans and policies were not identified and assessed. The end result is that the proposed towers are justifiably considered as another disruptive and unwelcome intrusion by the Tignè and Qui-Si-Sana communities.

The developers and their advisors focus exclusively on the impacts which are generated by their proposals, with the authorities generally avoiding the consideration of the big picture at the earliest possible stage.

Preliminary indications from the proposed Gozo Tunnel and the Sadeen “educational” setup at Marsaskala/Cottonera are already pointing in the same direction. In both cases, the alternatives that were generally brushed aside are the very options that need to be examined in detail in order to ensure that the challenges that will be faced in 2016 and beyond have not been prejudiced by myopic considerations in 2015.

Planning failures have serious consequences on those of our local communities that have to bear the brunt of the decisions taken for a long period of time. These can be avoided if the authorities refocus their efforts and realise that the economy is a tool which has to be a servant, and certainly not a master.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 20 December 2015

Overdevelopment of the Tigné peninsula

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by Carmel Cacopardo

published on April 10, 2010

The publication of the State of the Environment Report (SoER) for 2008 is an opportunity to take stock of the manner in which environmental responsibilities are being shouldered or neglected. One point the SoER fails to inform about is the link between overdevelopment and a negative social and environmental impact on the community.

Tigné peninsula in Sliema is a suitable example.

Two of the mega-projects in Tigné, namely the Midi and Fort Cambridge projects, have government fingerprints. The social and environmental impacts on the Sliema community more than outweigh the economic benefits derived. Yet, they have been given the go-ahead. While these two mega-projects were approved by Mepa, a third (Townsquare) is being processed. Other projects of various sizes and impacts have been approved or are in the pipeline both in Tigné and in other parts of Sliema.

Focusing on the macro-scale, three main issues need to be addressed: vacant dwellings, traffic generation and the quality of air.

In my opinion, given the large number of vacant dwellings, further large-scale development is not required. About 54,000 vacant dwellings were identified during the 2005 census and this number has been on the increase ever since.

Newly-constructed dwellings may or will be occupied but they are still the cause of a disintegration of the existing urban fabric in various localities as a result of an internal migration away from existing settlements.

Some areas are being depopulated, awaiting their turn to be demolished and redeveloped after someone makes a quick buck. The few remaining tenants are then squeezed out by “developers”. Some years back, an old lady at The Strand, Sliema, was faced with buildings being demolished all around (and above) her home in order to persuade her to move out.

This is resulting not just in urban decay but also in the forfeiture of an accumulated social capital.

This is not surprising in a society that only appreciates financial capital. Unfortunately, public authorities are on the same wavelength.

The 710 vehicles on the road per 1,000 population (2008 figures) is substantial. In a small country, rather than being a sign of affluence, this vehicle per capita ratio is the clearest indicator of the failure of public policy to address issues of sustainable mobility over the years. Past governments have been ineffective in this respect. The large number of dwellings being constructed at Tigné peninsula begs the question as to where the substantial additional traffic generated is to be accommodated. I am referring to both the traffic directed at the new residences and that directed towards the new commercial outlets. Roads in Malta are already bursting at the seams.

When Mepa is approving more intensive development through the construction of high-rise buildings, it is not giving sufficient weight to these impacts. In particular, it is ignoring the cumulative effects of so large a number of developments in so restricted a space.

A Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) of the local plans and planning policies would have pinpointed these shortcomings had it been carried out. Yet, the government tried to wriggle out of its responsibilities by clinging to a loophole, which exempted it from applying the SEA to policies on land-use planning. This has been done by a government that boasts about the central importance of the environment in its electoral platform. Yet, when push comes to shove, it wriggles out of its commitments.

Quality of air data is only made available relative to 2006 and 2007 in the SoER indicators.

Limiting my comments to the 2007 data relative to the Msida station, the available SoER indicators clearly show that PM10 measurements exceeded the EU limits on 24 per cent of the days measured and were very close to the permissible limit of 50μg/m3 with respect to the rest.

PM10 measures particulate matter, having a diameter not exceeding 10 microns. The primary source of such particulate matter, as is also emphasised by the SoER indicators, is fuel combustion from traffic and power generation. It is therefore clear that heavy traffic increases the incidence of PM10 with the consequent risks of a greater incidence of respiratory diseases. Studies carried out in Fgura and Żejtun in the 1990s point in this direction too.

These are the risks posed by an increase in traffic in an area such as Sliema, which is already heavily congested.

The issue of development has so far been considered within the framework of the rights of the owners of the property to be developed. It is about time that the rights of the community are factored in as, to date, they are not being given sufficient weight. In particular, the cumulative impacts of development are being ignored. This is applicable not just to Sliema but to all Maltese territory.

The net result is a quality of life which could be much better.